Issue No. 267

The Orbital Index

Issue No. 267 | May 1, 2024

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Starliner’s Crew Flight Test. After 14 years of development on a program that was supposed to take seven, Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is about to carry crew for its first time. This test flight to the ISS, helmed by two experienced NASA astronauts, could launch on its ULA Atlas V as soon as May 6th. The capsule can host up to seven astronauts, but will regularly fly with four NASA-affiliated crew members. Boeing has suggested that it will sell a fifth seat on Starliner to commercial entities, diverging from SpaceX’s pattern of selling fully commercial flights (e.g., to Axiom and through the Polaris program). Starliner underwent two uncrewed test flights in 2019 and 2022 but encountered software, clock, valve, flammable tape, and parachute issues. At least it wasn’t a cost-plus contract, so Boeing’s failure to deliver resulted in $1.5B in losses for the company instead of for taxpayers. If successful, Starliner will join Crew Dragon, its frenemy in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (who received $2.6 billion in 2014 vs Boeing’s $4.2 billion but has been flying astronauts to the ISS for 4 years now), in routinely carrying crew to the ISS once per year. (Meanwhile, Crew Dragon, which has been doing double duty, will likely revert to the originally intended cadence of launching to the ISS annually for the CCP program as well.)

Starliner lifted at the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral. Photo credit: NASA/Frank Michaux

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Eris on the pad down under. Private Australian company Gilmour Space raised their three-stage, solid-fuel-with-liquid-oxidizer hybrid Eris rocket on a pad at a commercial launch site in North Queensland. Eris will be Australia’s first domestically-produced orbital rocket to attempt launch (a modified US Redstone rocket launched Australia’s first satellite from the country in 1967, and the UK's Black Arrow launched from the same range in 1971). Eris is 25 meters tall and can carry 300 kg to SSO, similar to Electron. Its third-stage regeneratively cooled, kerolox Phoenix engine is 3D printed. It could launch as soon as later this week.

Eris on the pad.

Starship fuel transfer on track for 2025 demo. NASA shared that Starship’s Flight 3 intertank cryogenic fluid transfer (CFT) was “successful by all accounts,” although data is continuing to be reviewed. The Flight 3 CFT test was the completion of a 2020 Tipping Point award that funded the development of a 10-ton transfer demonstration of cryogenic liquid oxygen from Starship’s header tank (~23 t) to its main tank (~1,000 t). Hurdles for this transfer included unknown on-orbit fluid temps, fluid settling in zero-g, and temperature management of transfer lines. SpaceX’s CFT award is part of a larger effort by NASA to improve the state-of-the-art around cryogenic fluid management in space, which includes other projects like cryocooler development, radio frequency mass gauges (one was recently tested on IM-1), cryo-couplers (previously funded through another SpaceX Tipping Point award), thermal management coatings (originally discovered through a NIAC award), and liquefaction. All of these technologies will be necessary for long-term cryogenic fluid transfers and storage, a requisite for complex lunar and Martian mission profiles. Up next for SpaceX is a Starship-to-Starship transfer, currently targeted for some time in 2025. For this demonstration—a core step in enabling Starship’s ability to venture past LEO—a “target” Starship will launch to orbit, followed several weeks later by a “chaser” Ship, which will approach the target, dock, and transfer liquid to the target, with both then performing deorbit burns. SpaceX still has significant technology left to develop to flight readiness for this mission, including hot gas thrusters, relative navigation and docking systems, and CFT quick disconnects. Starship is currently on track to launch for the fourth time at the end of May, although the company still needs to submit its Flight 3 mishap investigation report to the FAA (this has previously happened relatively close to launch).

A mission overview of the Starship-to-Starship fuel transfer slated for next year. Credit: NASA

News in brief. SLIM survived a third lunar night Rocket Lab launched both South Korea’s NEONSAT-1 and NASA’s ACS3 solar sail (covered last week), using their Electron kick stage to deploy the two satellites ~500 km apart before performing an active deorbit burn NASA’s CloudSat mission ended after eighteen years of observing the vertical structure and ice/water content clouds globally Falcon 9 first stage boosters have now landed 300 times (with a recent single booster hitting a record 20 flights) India-based Dhurva Space raised a $9M Series A to develop a manufacturing facility Voyager 1 resumed sending health and status updates after a 5-month hiatus due to ~3% corrupted memory in the 46-year-old flight data subsystem Hubble went into safe mode, and so did TESS (after just having resumed science last week) Spanish launch startup PLD space has raised $120M so far to expand their production facilities and continue developing their MIURA rocket series Nicaragua joined China’s ILRS moon base program China’s latest crew of astronauts (Shenzhou-18) arrived at Tiangong space station, right after the Shenzhou-17 crew fixed the station’s solar power supply which had been damaged by a debris strike Chang’e-6 may launch to collect samples from the farside of the Moon this week (c.f. Issue 260) Finally, China says they’re also on track for a 2029 crewed Moon landing True Anomaly reduced their workforce by ~25% SpaceX launched two Galileo satellites aboard a Falcon 9 for the EUSPA in an oddly secretive manner (no livestream video after stage separation) that is typically reserved for classified US defense missions Russia vetoed a UN resolution (jointly proposed by the US and Japan) that sought to reaffirm the ban on nuclear weapons in Earth orbit per the Outer Space Treaty Astroscale’s ADRAS-J rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) demonstration mission successfully approached within several hundred meters of its defunct rocket debris target, capturing its first images.

An up-close photo of the Japanese HII-A rocket rendezvous target for Astroscale’s ADRAS-J mission, which happens to be the world's first image of space debris captured by RPO operations (as demonstrated in this wild video of the spacecraft closing in on its target). 

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The horse’s mane. JWST recently captured this new view of the iconic Horsehead Nebula, officially named Barnard 33. The nebula is located in the Orion constellation ~1,300 ly away. The image below compares JWST’s high-res capture to shots from Hubble and Euclid, showing off the impressive detail the telescope is capable of.

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